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Voluntary Busing Plan Is Unveiled in Denver

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Months after the Denver schools were freed from a federal school-desegregation order, the district may return to a busing plan that would allow students to attend schools outside their neighborhoods.

Superintendent Irv Moskowitz released a proposal this month that would divide the 61,000-student district into four zones. Students would be able to enroll in any school within the boundaries of the zone in which they live.

Some local officials said the voluntary program could ease fears of a return to racial isolation in the schools following the end of court-ordered busing last year.

But Aaron Gray, the school board president, and some other board members have already expressed opposition, arguing that the district needs to turn to more pressing needs in the classroom. The board is expected to vote on the proposal Feb. 8.

Denver's renewed interest in busing came as two other urban districts grappled with how to maintain racial balance in their schools.

Missouri's attorney general this month called for an end to federal court supervision of the St. Louis district. He also pledged to give the city's schools more state aid in exchange for phasing out desegregation programs.

And in Madison, Wis., the school board voted this month to drop part of a program that pairs schools in predominantly black neighborhoods with schools in mostly white areas. Critics of the board's move said the plan that would replace the program would unfairly burden black families.

'Up Against the Wall'

Denver is among a handful of urban districts struggling to move forward after the end of court orders that dictated many of their policy decisions.

Last fall, a U.S. District Court judge released the school system from more than 20 years of federal supervision. The judge also upheld a 1974 amendment to the state constitution barring districts not under federal desegregation orders from busing students for racial balance. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1995.)

The proposal released this month calls for voluntary busing, paid for by the district.

School officials hope it would create movement between predominantly minority communities of the city's north side and mostly white neighborhoods in the south, said Mark Stephens, a district spokesman. About 67 percent of the district's students are members of minority groups.

But Mr. Gray, the school board president, said he fears the $1.6 million the new program would cost the district each year for transportation would eat into money needed for academic programs. Last November, local voters rejected a $30 million tax levy that would have financed school reforms, he noted.

"Right now we are up against the wall in terms of resources," Mr. Gray said. "The question for me is: Where do we best put our money? Do we put it in busing or into improving student achievement?"

'Firm But Reasonable'

In Missouri, Attorney General Jay Nixon asked a federal court this month to end cross-district busing in the St. Louis city schools. A March 4 hearing is scheduled on the matter.

Mr. Nixon filed a motion asking the court to take its cue from the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year in the Kansas City, Mo., desegregation case. The high court ruled that the federal district court in that case exceeded its authority when it forced the state to pay for desegregation efforts in districts that were not violating the constitution. (See Education Week, June 21, 1995.)

State officials have claimed that the St. Louis district wants to prolong court supervision because it has led to rulings that require the state to pour billions of dollars into the local schools. Missouri has spent more than $1.3 billion on court-ordered desegregation programs in the city, according to the attorney general's office.

"The action we are proposing is firm but reasonable," Mr. Nixon said in a recent statement.

The attorney general has also outlined a plan for phasing out desegregation programs in the 41,000-student district, where about 80 percent of the students are African-American.

The district has its own plan for ending court supervision. It calls for a release from oversight in the 1998-99 school year and continuation of state funding until 2001.

In the Neighborhood

In Wisconsin, the Madison school board voted this month to end a program that had paired two elementary schools to promote racial balance.

The district created the voluntary program 12 years ago, after local residents filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights over what they claimed were segregated schools. A second pairing of schools has been left unchanged.

Under the voluntary scheme, the two schools--one in a predominantly minority community, the other in a mostly white neighborhood--took in students from outside their attendance areas.

But in recent years, the program's early success has faded, said Mike McCabe, a spokesman for the 25,000-student district.

A number of white families dropped out, skewing the racial balance in the schools. The schools now have minority enrollments of about 60 percent each. Districtwide, about 70 percent of the students are white.

To balance enrollment, the school board has replaced the pairing with a cluster program, bringing in two more schools from predominantly white areas to join the original schools.

But critics say that under the board's plan, it is mostly black students from one neighborhood who would end up riding the bus.

Nancy Mistele, a school board member who supported the changes, disagreed. There is "a strong commitment in the community to neighborhood schools," she said. She noted that the board chose to lower class sizes and put more money into the school in the mostly black neighborhood in an effort to improve the academic program there.

"I don't believe the solution is to go back to neighborhood schools when you can't give a neighborhood school to everybody," countered Eileen Potts-Dawson, the co-president of the parent-teacher organization for the paired schools. She and other parents plan to file a complaint with the OCR and seek an injunction stopping the board from enacting its plan next fall.

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